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Gardeners’ skin cancer risk

Siski Green / 21 April 2016

Gardeners are at higher risk of skin cancer than ever before. Find out how to prevent it and recognise the signs. Early diagnosis is key to survival.

When working in a greenhouse or conservatory, glass will not offer you protection from harmful rays.
When working in a greenhouse or conservatory, glass will not offer you protection from harmful rays.

Fresh air, physical activity, surrounded by greenery – gardening should be one of the healthiest things you choose to do. But there is one disease that you’re more likely to get if you garden regularly – melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Related: The health benefits of gardening

In fact, recent research has found that men over the age of 50 are at the highest risk of developing this fast-growing type of cancer.

With the back, head and neck being common areas to be affected, it can be difficult to spot and often diagnosis is made late, making the disease much harder to treat and reducing survival times.

Skin cancer is treatable, however, if it’s caught early enough so it’s important to check yourself or your partner regularly.

Related: Don't take risks with the sun

This is why Myfanwy Townsend Melanoma Research Fund has teamed up with Charlie Dimmock and Alan Titchmarsh to highlight the risks in a campaign titled Watch Your Back.

“Gardening is a wonderful pastime and getting active outdoors is a positively healthy thing to do at any age,” says Dimmock. “However we ALL need to be more aware of the dangers of the sun. Men especially can be reluctant when it comes to applying sunscreen, visiting their doctor or checking their skin for signs of change. With this attitude not only do we all risk melanoma, but all other sun related cancers”. 

Women who garden should ask their partner to check the backs of their legs and arms regularly. These are the parts of the body that are most often affected with the most dangerous form of skin cancer, melanoma, and while women are usually quicker than men at spotting changes in their skin, the arms and legs can be trickier to check.

Men who garden should ask their partner to check their scalp, neck and back regularly, as these are the zones where melanoma is most often diagnosed late, most likely because they are difficult to see and also get lots of sun exposure. 

Related: Vitamin D vs skin cancer - getting the balance right

Charlie Dimmock

Look for these skin cancer signs

If you have moles, check them regularly for any changes – taking a well-lit photo is the best way to ensure you know what you’re comparing to, but you can also carefully measure a mole to make sure it’s not growing.

Also look for:

  • irregular edges,
  • different colours within the mole
  • speckles
  • scaliness or crustiness on the surface of a mole
  • a lesion that seems like a scar where you haven’t been injured
  • a firm, red lump

If you see any of these, get them checked by a professional. 

NB Remember, too, that skin cancer can occur in places that don’t get exposed to the sun, so check those parts too. 

What you can do to help protect each other from skin cancer

Give each other regular massages

For men, ask your partner to focus on your back, your neck and your scalp. For women, the backs of the legs and also arms, as well as any other body part she can't see easily herself. 

Rub sun cream in

Rather than trying to do it yourself, ask your partner. That way they can also check you for skin changes. Apply sun cream of a minimum of SPF30 and be generous. Experts recommend a tablespoon of cream per limb, so one tablespoon per arm, for example, and one for one lower leg and so on. Remember to reapply after an hour or so to ensure continuous protection. Try to wear UV-protective clothing, too. 

Sponge or scrub each other in the bath

It’s a lovely feeling and you get a good skin check during the process.  

Take naked photos

The main point of this is so that you can both remember what your skin looks like. Do this every six months and you’ll soon see any changes and can get them checked immediately. 

Set a timer

It’s easy to get carried away in the garden and suddenly you realise you’ve been out for several hours when you only meant to do ten minutes of weeding. So set the timer for yourself or your partner and plan to have a tea or juice break together when the alarm goes off. That way you’ll avoid getting too much sun. 

Buy each other hats

Ears are an often neglected body part when it comes to the sun, as is the scalp where thinning hair can make skin cancer more likely. Use sun cream but also wear a hat at all times, preferably one with a large brim that also covers the back of your neck. 

Head to a gardening centre for a 'Watch Your Back!' skin health event

These will be held in nine gardening centres around the country, from 30th April - 2nd May.

  • Hertfordshire - Sat 30th April
  • Surrey - Sat 30th April
  • Cheshire - Saturday 30th April
  • Hampshire - Sunday 1st May
  • Bedfordshire - Sunday 1st May
  • West Yorkshire - Sunday 1st May
  • Cambridge - Monday 2nd May
  • West Sussex - Monday 2nd May
  • Lancashire - Monday 2nd May

Visit for more information.

Top 10 sun protection tips taken from The Gardeners Sun Safety Code 

  1. Wear a broad spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF30 and a sunblock on your ears and lips. Re-apply both every hour or so as their effects will be reduced by sunlight.

  2. Limit time spent outside in sunny weather and try and stay out of direct sunlight between 11.00am and 4.00pm.

  3. Wear clothing that protects arms, legs and hands – ideally choose a UVP branded product as this will offer higher protection.  Remember that not all colours provide the same amount of protection; wear darker colours as these will stop more of the sun’s rays than lighter colours. The UK Skin Cancer Foundation has this in-depth article on choosing sun-protective clothing:

  4. Plan gardening activities in advance during hot, sunny weather.  Set time aside to do indoor or shed tasks between 10am and 2pm when the sun is at its very hottest.

  5. If you are prone to sweating, choose a highly water resistant sunscreen; I recommend the type sportspeople wear.

  6. Don’t forget your sunscreen on overcast days; dangerous UVA and UVB rays still make their way through the clouds and dramatically increase the risk of developing melanoma.

  7. Sunscreens do not offer 100% protection and should be used in addition to protective clothing. 

  8. When working in a greenhouse or conservatory, glass will not offer you protection from harmful rays.

  9. The shade offers protection but you are still in danger of ‘reflective radiation’ so ensure that your skin is protected, wherever you are in the garden.

  10. Your forehead, scalp and ears are high risk areas for melanoma, and even more so if you are bald or have thinning hair so don a suitable hat with a legionnaire flap at the back. This will also protect your hair from drying out and becoming brittle too.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.